Tennis: Kuerten cast out by love machine

French Open tennis: Blossoming romance inspires unstoppable Medvedev's victory over local favourite
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The Independent Online
By John Roberts

in Paris

THOSE WHO remember a lovesick Andrei Medvedev pining for the German player Anke Huber after losing in the second round at Wimbledon as an 18-year-old in 1993 may be pleased to know that the romance has blossomed again, along with the Ukrainian's form and sense of humour.

Mocking his world ranking, which has slumped from No 4 to No 100, Medvedev advanced to the semi-finals of the French Open yesterday, having defeated Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, and Gustavo Kuerten, the Paris favourite in all but seeding, on the way.

Asked why his fortunes had changed so dramatically, Medvedev said: "Imagine a miserable guy playing and a happy guy playing, who do you think is going to win? When there is love, you're inspired. You can write poems, you can write music, you can play good tennis, you write good articles, whatever."

Reporters anxious to discuss the dynamics of Medvedev's drop shots and wicked backhands down the line, which combined to unhinge Kuerten, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4, were put on hold. "I have a question for you guys," Medvedev said. "It seems like everybody else is worried about my wedding except me and Anke. I just want to know - when is it? We should be prepared.

"You guys are writing about this. It is all over Europe. I even hear it on CNN, believe it or not. People are calling me from Kiev saying, `Congratulations. Not with your game.' `With what?' `You getting married'. `Really? That's nice'.

"Believe me, just so you know, when - let's say if - we get married, you will all know in advance so you can prepare your presents. At the moment we'll leave it that I'm very happy because my private life is settled. We're not getting married, at least this year."

Medvedev's zany press conferences used to be the highlight of the day, even more enjoyable than his impressive tennis. Alas, while the consistency of his interviews remained high, his form deteriorated, dogged by injuries and self-doubt. After a while, his wit and wisdom was no longer in such demand.

After reaching the French Open semi-finals in 1993, defeating Stefan Edberg in the quarter-finals before losing to Sergi Bruguera, Medvedev was unable to produce his potent groundstrokes with the same frequency, until he arrived here last week.

Anke Huber, ranked No 30 in the WTA Tour's world rankings, missed the tournament because of injury (she is expected to be here to watch Medvedev's semi-final against the unseeded Brazilian Fernando Meligeni), but her beau's game flourished.

"First it was a miracle that I got into the French Open, because I was right on the line of the cut," he said. "To be in the semi-finals ... I just want to keep my eyes closed and let this dream end without waking up and thinking about the future."

Defeating Sampras in four sets in the second round obviously raised Medvedev's expectations of himself, even allowing for the American's unease on clay. "Beating Pete, it doesn't matter if it's on clay or mud or water. If you beat him in backgammon, you feel good. Beating him was an unbelievable lift for me."

At the time, Medvedev did not exactly jump for joy. "I wanted to play down the fact that I beat him," he said. "I didn't want extra attention, because I didn't feel that I could deal with it. I could have given you the standard answers [you get] when somebody beats a great player. But I'd rather give you something cold so nobody even noticed the defeat. I think I succeeded in that.

"When Pete lost, I saw maybe one article mentioning my name, and that was fine with me, because I knew that the tournament had just begun."

He had not displayed any sign of triumphalism on the court. "Some people can fall on the ground, some people can fall on their knees. Me, when I win, I just say, `Thank you God, I'm out of here'. I will celebrate somewhere else.

"Winning matches hasn't come easily to me lately. When I win the match point, I sort of say, `Is it really over? Is it finished?' I shake hands, I leave the court. That's my personality, whether you like it or not."

Playing Kuerten, the 1997 champion, Medvedev sensed that his opponent would be feeling slightly uneasy as a result of the expectation he had created by winning the Monte Carlo Open and the Italian Open en route to Paris. "I don't think that Gustavo was prepared," Medvedev said. "I think it's the first time that he played the tournament as a clear-cut favourite. Believe me, it's lots of pressure.

"Everybody is talking, in America, Europe, even Ukraine. Gustavo is the favourite to win the French Open. He reads all that, believe me. He brings his family, he brings his friends. It's very difficult. You have to be very mature to look through this, to concentrate on what you have to do."

Meligeni, ranked No 54, ensured there would be at least one unseeded finalist on Sunday by defeating an out-of-sorts Alex Corretja, of Spain, last year's runner-up, in straight sets. It was love for Medvedev, and 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 for Meligeni.

Jana Novotna was taken off centre court in a wheelchair after severely twisting her ankle, casting doubt on her ability to defend her Wimbledon singles title later this month. She was playing in a doubles quarter-final with Natasha Zvereva, of Belarus, when the pair collided.